Marriage and Poverty

Ten times out of ten, when a conservative starts talking about the causes of and remedies for poverty, the word “marriage” comes up within about two minutes max. And usually we are told that “broken homes” are the cause of poverty and marriage its solution. That was one of the themes of Marco Rubio’s Big Poverty Speech yesterday.

Without question, successful committed relationship (whether you put a ring on it or not) are conducive to stable households and all sorts of ancillary benefits. But as Matt Yglesias points out today, some of the arguments for marriage as a poverty elixer is just based on bad or dishonest math:

If you look up the Federal Poverty Guidelines you’ll see that the way it works is that one person is poor if he or she earns less than $11,490. But due to household economies of scale, the FPG says that for two people to be non-poor they need to make $15,510 not $22,980. Indeed, the poverty line for a family of three is only $19,530—less than double the poverty line for one. Basically poverty is $11,490 for the first person plus $4,020 for each additional person.

So imagine a single mom earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and working 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year. She’s got $14,500 a year in income which leaves her and her daughter below the poverty line. Now she meets another single mom who’s in the exact same financial situation. The two of them fall in love, and since they live in an enlightened state they are able to get married. Now instead of two separate two-person households each earning $14,500 and being poor we have a single four-person household earning $29,000, which is well above the poverty line for four. They could even adopt a fifth child and still not be poor. Which is to say that marriage “lifts” families out of poverty not by increasing their incomes but by reducing what the federal government assumes their expenses to be.

Those assumptions, Yglesias continues, aren’t totally unrealistic, since two (or more) can live more cheaply than one on a per capita basis. But it doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with marriage, and the corresponding assumption that marriage bears with it some sort of moral bonus that means a significantly higher standard of living for those in Holy Matrimony and condemnation to squalor for those who aren’t is very dubious.

Beyond Matt’s excellent point, it’s always struck me that the conservative argument for marriage is often crudely materialist, certainly for people who more often than not claim a faith-based source for their public policy views. Where’s the sacramental content of tying the knot if you’re doing it to get preferential treatment from government?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.